Justify Your Unflushed Shit: Morbid Angel’s Illud Divinum Insanus

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Journal of extreme record, Decibel Magazine, previously featured a highly entertaining column entitled Justify Your Shitty Taste, in which a staff writer would defend a notorious album that was badly received by critics and fans upon release and, with a few notable exceptions, generally hasn’t had its reputation rehabilitated since. No prizes for guessing that St. Anger was one of the featured records. Or Cold Lake. Or Diabolus in Musica. Or Turbo and Swansong – though they are probably the most prominent examples of records that have been exonerated by history.

Sadly the series ceased  – maybe the bad releases by established bands just got so sucky, no hack could find merit in them even after smoking an entire greenhouse of cannabis and being bribed by the record label.

But I propose that we in the Toilet ov Hell revive Decibel’s tradition of devil’s advocate polemics. For potential copyright-infringement concerns we’ll alter the title of our series, but the spirit and ritual remain: One of us delivers an impassioned and logical rant about why a much-maligned record is actually brilliant or at least not as bad as everybody else claimed before flushing. Then, in the comments section, everybody else tells the writer s/he’s a deranged fuckwit with stupefying taste and possibly a wallet full of record label payola.

In the time the Toilet’s been on the grid, I’ve noticed that my thoughts seem to be quite respected around here. It is sincerely gratifying. But today, let’s put an unceremonious end to that as I inaugurate Justify Your Unflushed Shit by feebly suggesting that metalheads everywhere give a second chance to Morbid Angel’s 2011 disasterpiece, Illud Divinum Insanus.

I.

Devastatingly bad reviews are always a lot more fun to read than effusively good ones, and “devastatingly bad” are almost the only sort I could find from the time of Illud Divinum Insanus’s release. I’d not anticipated how much fun doing the research for this article was going to be.

“’Illud Divinum Insanus’ is meant to be extreme music for extreme people, but unfortunately I’m sat at a desk with a mug of tea in a comfortably lit room, and I’m not feeling particularly extreme; nowhere around are there ravaged animal carcasses, semi-conscious hookers or paintings on linen canvas, sketched out with sky blue Crayola and detailed with my own faeces. Maybe it’s not for me, then, but let’s face it – it’s probably not for you, either.”

– Duncan Geddes, www.ultimate-guitar.com

 “ ‘Radikult’ is simply..… bad butt rock that manages to be every bit as banal as commercially driven hard rock usually is. “Radikult” also manages to go on for far too long, making it fail at everything that it attempts to do. It’s too mainstream to please the band’s fans, while the rest of the album won’t appeal to mainstream listeners….a song that, if remembered at all, will be remembered for appealing to nobody.”

– Dasher10, www.metalunderground.com

 “It wouldn’t surprise me if Trey never turned over the demos to Season Of Mist. Or perhaps the label, thrilled to have signed the highest-priority act in death metal today….had no real idea what atrocity was about to transpire. Morbid Angel has all but abandoned everything that made them the top-tier performers they once were, striking down their death metal aesthetic in favor of an outdated, lazy techno/industrial vibe that sounds hilariously out of place… Something has gone terribly wrong here, and it is utterly baffling that this was allowed to happen.

We couldn’t even team up on this with opposing views, because there are no opposing views anywhere on our staff.

….entitling a song “Too Extreme!” only serves to call attention to the fact that there is nothing extreme, interesting, or in any way laudable about it. Additionally, calling the outro to your shit-fest of an album “Mea Culpa” (the Latinate equivalent of “My bad”) seems to go beyond a palatable level of wink-and-nudge critic-baiting, and instead approaches the level of reckless self-harm that typically requires civil commitment….the intermittent telephone rings that Season Of Mist inserted throughout the promo download of this album actually improve upon what has been recorded.”

– Jim Brandon and Dan Obstkreig, Lastrites.

Okay, I think you get the idea. Now my turn.

II.

It’s very difficult for me to criticize Morbid Angel, no matter how bad they artistically misfire. Because the truth is, they habitually have. Even they admit that they took two attempts at getting their debut album recorded, and now regard the first attempt in 1986 as a non-canonical bootleg. It took me many years to figure out which Morbid Angel album I liked best, because to me, they all have some less-than-stellar songs. It’s a bit difficult to grant an album All-Killer-No-Filler status when perhaps 30% of the setlist is done on keyboards after a 10-hour Quake marathon. (I finally settled on Covenant, which seems to be a safe choice at this point in history.) At any rate, when some of the other material on your albums ranks as possibly the only example in metal which sounds like it actually was written and performed by Lovecraftian demons instead of 20-something humans – which literally does sound insanely inspired by dark possession – I absolutely think you’ve earned the moral capital to get it wrong sometimes.

My point is – a Morbid Angel album where a lot of the material makes you raise your eyebrow incredulously was not a new experience for me by the time I heard Illud Divinum Insanus. But here’s where I get more contentious: Examined carefully, there is absolutely nothing on Illud Divinum Insanus which is without precedent in Morbid Angel’s artistic remit. Nothing. It is NOT a sell-out. For anybody who understands this, the worst that can be claimed is that the band just happened to emphasize the aspects nobody really prefers, but which were either kept on a tolerably tight leash throughout previous excursions, or relegated to remix EPs.

Looked at statistically and disqualifying the intro (just as you’d have to do if we were examining Blessed Are the Sick or Gateways to Annihilation), the record features five out of ten songs that could be classed as “orthodox”, Morbid Angel-style death metal: “Existo Vulgore,” “Blades for Baal,” “10 More Dead,” “Nevermore,” and “Beauty Meets Beast.”

Of those, “Existo Vulgore” and “Nevermore” are perfectly serviceable Morbid Angel numbers that I can get behind. Moreover “Blades For Baal” is the standout of the orthodox tracks and one which I knew, from the first time I heard it, was destined for the Greatest Morbid Hits playlist on my i-Pod alongside the likes of “Chapel of Ghouls”, “Brainstorm”, “God of Emptiness”, etc. It somewhat resembles “Vengeance Is Mine” – another personal favourite – but also features a very nicely-executed breakdown and solo.

I’m also partial to “10 More Dead.” At the time, this track came under hive-mind fire for apparently sounding too “nu-metal.” I’m sorry, but equating that song to the output of Korn or Soulfly, as many did, is just asinine. For one thing, it’d have to be the first nu-metal song I’ve ever heard with a skank-and-blast middle section. (It’s quite funny to designate, as a nu-metal song, a composition that 99.9% of nu-metal bands would thereby be incapable of performing. Look, here’s a fun exercise: Some weeks ago, here at the TovH, we featured a nu-metal theme for Riff ov the Week. So I guess what you’re saying is that, had I entered the competition, I could have used one of the riffs from this song? Anybody care to tell me which one?)

The main rationale for such a categorization appeared to be that Morbid Angel used a lower-than-usual tuning, probably on a different guitar – like an Ibanez Universe 7-string. That, you’ll remember, was the axe of choice for the nu-metallers; hence the categorization. The only problem is – that as anyone who got Covenant when it first came out will remember – Morbid Angel were employing 7-string guitars when the nu-metal genre was still in diapers. You’re putting cart before horse.

At this point it needs to be established: Contrary to conventional wisdom, Illud Divinum Insanus is, at the very least, a 50 percent death metal album and 100% a Morbid Angel album. Anybody who ranks it as an artistic misfire on the level of Cold Lake or, say, Lulu, is patently incorrect. The only way it could be that is if Lulu featured a token bunch of songs which sounded like they came from Master of Puppets and Lou Reed wasn’t singing on them.

III.

Now let’s deal with the other five decidedly unorthodox songs. Two fall into a category of being songs that resemble Laibach remixes of themselves: “Too Extreme!” and “Destructos vs. The Earth.” In other words, if they’d gotten Tim Yeung to provide the kick and snare for those songs instead of just the cymbals – perhaps in some busier or more brutal patterns than what was programmed – and omitted some of the electro bells and whistles, they’d more closely resemble “orthodox” death metal – of sorts.

That leaves us with “I Am Morbid,” the infamously derided “Radikult,” and “Profundis-Mea Culpa.” Of those three, “I Am Morbid,” oft dismissed as a hideous attempt at stadium rock, isn’t that extraordinary if you consider some of the band’s earlier excursions into outright groove like “Where the Slime Live.” “Profundis-Mea Culpa” – besides being somewhat a reprise of the first two tracks – bears slight resemblance to another song from the same 1995 album; namely “Hatework” – a self-consciously experimental closer which everybody seemed to like in those days.

(I’ll go out on a limb and say that stylistically, the whole record picks up where Domination left off. Had David Vincent remained in the band all those years, it’s possible we would have gotten a record like Illud Divinum Insanus much sooner. The difference is that back then, the “industrial experimentation” singled out for the most criticism on account of sounding so “dated” wouldn’t have been dated at all – instead, the band would have been accused of bandwagon-jumping. Which they would have been, but whatever.)

No band ever deserves to be lauded just for the sake of experimentation itself. That’s the main criticism that is made of Illud Divinum Insanus, and let me state now that I think it’s a totally legitimate one. In fact, I agree with it – Illud Divinum Insanus does not strike me as a particularly “cutting-edge” album by 2011 extreme metal standards; and I too would have preferred a higher ratio of orthodox death metal. But orthodox death metal itself does not guarantee merit. After all, Heretic has the highest concentration of orthodox death metal Morbid Angel have ever offered since Altars of Madness – and it holds the distinction of being the most unmemorable Morbid Angel album I own. I own all of them, and Heretic is the only one I haven’t listened to in the many years since I got it.

Plenty pointed out that in 2011, there was nothing “extreme” or “cutting-edge” about crossing over to low-tier industrial rock – like Rammstein, Marilyn Manson, or White Zombie – from about fifteen years prior. For me personally, though, that was always a moot point. Any self-respecting Morbid Angel fan in the late ‘90s was paying as little attention as possible to mall-rat abominations like those acts anyway – so even in 2011, what Morbid Angel were doing kinda was fresh and “new” by default, at least to me.

But I concede that’s a strawman argument. More honestly I have to address a deeper concern fans have about a band losing its stylistic identity – people who have been fans of Morbid Angel just as long as I have and who have invested just as much of their own identity into it all. Doing this recalls my observation about the band sounding like a bunch of Lovecraftian demons. With their inhuman percussive battery, twisted riffs, tortured solos and all-round dragged-from-another-dimension vibe, topped off with Vincent’s classic Death Metal English lyricism, Morbid Angel certainly achieved that in a way that many other peers curiously didn’t.

For listeners who get off on that trademark demonic vibe, it can be a little disconcerting when Morbid Angel break character and seem merely “human”. They’ve done that occasionally in the past – there were hints of it on Domination; and as much as I enjoy Pete Sandoval under the microscope on Heretic with “Drum Check”, I have to admit that putting a drum solo on a Morbid Angel record that is introduced by a studio engineer directing Pete to hit his kick drum is really quite out of context. Any spoken words on a Morbid Angel record should be ritual incantations, not sound-checks. You may as well have Nile write a song about hot-rods that starts out with engine-revving noises.

Well, Illud Divinum Insanus is full of disconcerting, all-too-of-this-world moments like that. Again, they mightn’t be without precedent, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily welcome. The lighters/smartphones-ahoy call-and-response of “I Am Morbid,” the news broadcast in “Destructos vs. The Earth”, the whole fucking concept of “Radikult” with its Yee-hah! vocal stylings – don’t worry, I’m not even going to try and defend that song. If I was a Season of Mist executive, it’s the one track I would have insisted they omit. (Although to the “Bodycount called; they want their lyrics back” brigade I must point out: It’s “Killer Cult” you dicks, not “Kill a cop.” Granted, that’s not to suggest it’s any better a line; nor to deny the liner notes should’ve included a lyric sheet to avoid confusion.)

Indeed, the overall lack of Death Metal English on the album in favour of repetitive sloganeering, gang vocals and so forth is somewhat off-putting. It sounds like David Vincent, but it doesn’t play like him. That said, for me,“I Am Morbid” is a nice change of pace from the preceding blasters even if it is a stark example of the “too human” Morbid Angel; so I can get behind that, too. And here’s the shocker: I love “Destructos vs. The Earth.” Disco rhythms, high-pitched backing vocals and all. To me it’s not only catchy – there’s something remarkably Morbid Angel about it for such an unconventional approach. I can’t effectively explain why, but it’s my favourite track on the album. It would be easy to explain that the song is saved by Azagthoth’s characteristic and singular guitar-playing – an element that was begrudgingly listed as one of few redeeming features across pretty much the whole album by critics trying to find something nice to say – but for me it goes way beyond that. I don’t like the song in spite of itself; I actually like it; as in – I would gladly cover it in a Morbid Angel tribute band.

IV.

Before concluding, let me address a few other criticisms that I remember dominating reviews and comment threads in 2011:

1) “It isn’t the same without Pete.”

And Surgical Steel isn’t the same without Ken. In fact, Morbid Angel isn’t the same without Mike Browning, Dallas Ortega or Richard Brunelle; certainly not without Erik Rutan. Hell, Napalm Death wasn’t even the same side of the LP without Justin Broadrick. But shit happens.

It shouldn’t even need saying: People, this is heavy metal. Line-up changes aren’t just inevitable, they’re practically mandatory. Sure, I might be saying this as somebody whose favourite Van Halen album is 5150; and I’ll understand if you think that disqualifies my judgment. But if we go through your favourite records by your favourite bands, I’ll bet we can find at least one historical example where people said, “They’re never gonna pull it off without that guy” and then they did. Seriously, this argument should have died out from Heaven and Hell onwards.

2) “The drums [on the death metal songs] sound too triggered.”

This one should’ve died out by now too. As I understand it, there are only two Morbid Angel albums where the kick drums weren’t triggered: A (Canonical), and A (Non-Canonical). So if it’s about the bass drums sounding “fake”, well, you’ve had since 1991 to air that gripe. As for the rest of the kit, it varies over the years of their back-catalogue. On B, the snare was triggered too – if I remember correctly from watching Tom Morris explain it on the DVD. On F, it was kicks only. On G, it sounds like snare and the toms as well, although it’s amazing how much a dose of gated reverb can make real toms sound like fake ones; so you never know (There’s a LOT of albums nowadays where the drums sound like those on Gateways). I’ll say this much: Apart from the kicks, the entire kit sounds a damn sight more real on I than it did on G; so I don’t really know what everybody’s problem is. (Note: I’m NOT talking about the obviously-programmed drums on the non-orthodox material.)

Sample-replacement of acoustic drums on records has gone from being a necessary evil in death metal to a ubiquitous industry standard in heavy metal generally. I’m not in love with it; and I’d prefer if “good” drum sounds (a subjective matter anyway) could be achieved without resorting to triggered samples. But all I’m gonna say is: If you’re going to criticize the “fakeness” of the drums on Illud Divinum Insanus, you’d better not be a fan of Pig Destroyer or Genghis Tron.

3) “The vocals are too high in the mix.”

I agree. But have you heard Blessed Are the Sick lately? Go back right now and have a listen.

Points 2 and 3 highlight various gripes about the production; often a sore point with Morbid Angel over the years. Their albums haven’t always strictly sounded like what you would expect of a premiere death metal band’s records. At various times their albums have stood accused of sounding sludgy/muddy (D), tinny (C), plastic (B), robotic (G), or sterile (H). Plenty of bands weather such criticisms, but remarkably only Morbid Angel have ever managed to collect such a variety of oft-contradictory adjectives throughout their career.

It possibly has as much to do with the fact that unlike their peers, Morbid Angel made a point of working with different producers on nearly every outing rather than lucking out with Scott Burns or Colin Richardson and sticking with him – a brave approach resulting in a decidedly mixed bag of sonic capture. It’s my personal belief that only Gateways to Annihilation has ever yielded what I imagine to be the heaving majesty of a band with Morbid Angel’s trademark, and even that has its flaws. Tellingly, though, no Morbid Angel record has ever stopped them from sounding like Morbid Angel and that is due to one element alone: Trey Azagthoth’s guitar-playing. Do you want evil? Do you want inhumanity? That’s where you’ll find it on any Morbid Angel record; including this one. After ten albums, beyond any doubt is the fact that you can change drummers and second guitar players; you can even change frontmen – but if you took Azagthoth out of Morbid Angel, that’s where it ends.

V.

Leaving the “Too Human!” issue aside, there’s an even more telling dichotomy which I believe gets to the heart of why people found Illud Divinum Insanus so off-putting.

The successful pop artist is one who uses different sounds to play the same song; whereas the successful rock artist uses different songs to play the same sound. That probably belies the importance of songwriting over signature sound, as far as the rock artist is concerned. Generally, an album where all ten songs have the same instrumental arrangement presented in the same type of mix (ie: most heavy metal albums) better have real strength and diversity in songwriting to maintain interest. (That or impeccable chops. Both together are ideal, though so many death metal bands settle for only the latter one.)

But signature sound can’t be discounted in the equation, because it is the signature sound that often determines what can be gotten away with in songwriting as well as in change of genre, which is sometimes required when trying different approaches to songwriting. Successful pop artists are required to reinvent their image and sound to stay relevant; while the successful rock band has a different challenge: Maintain the signature sound and image, but use it to play different, more adventurous, and more diverse types of song. In rock, credibility is all wrapped up in the notion of resisting outside pressure to change, rather than adapting to change successfully as it is in pop.

Rock artists are expected to change only in the sense that they explore their persona more deeply rather than being compelled to overhaul it radically. Beyond that, they are required to surpass personal musical achievements of a nature they’ve already demonstrated prowess in (writing better songs, playing guitar more extravagantly or more subtly, etc.), or, if possible, to achieve greater social relevance on their own terms. But if not capable of doing any of those things – if only capable of revealing a certain amount of their persona, if only willing to play certain types of song and unable to write better ones, if unwilling to deliver a message to anyone beyond the crowd they’ve already gotten acceptance from – they will probably still maintain their advantage provided they maintain the signature sound they’ve already established. That is exactly where the AC/DCs, Motorheads and Slayers of the world have found themselves, and there are much worse places to be.

By contrast, the Led Zeppelins, Judas Priests, Metallicas, Megadeths, Celtic Frosts and even Bathory have taken the bigger gamble we most famously associate with the Beatles or U2 – crossing genres, mastering different types of song, more persona-led development in songwriting, even trying different instrumentation and production methods. It’s a gamble that sometimes pays off, with commensurate rewards; but it can only be taken so far as it doesn’t endanger credibility. Celtic Frost sometimes succeeded (as on Into the Pandemonium), and sometimes failed (as on Cold Lake).

Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” might be a ballad with a string section in the arrangement; but it’s a good ballad and it still sounds like Metallica. There is no hint (yet) of a band undergoing identity crisis, or that they couldn’t handle the unfamiliar terrain. It simply comes across as a thrash metal act who have the confidence and skill to try something quite uncharacteristic; whereas the same band’s live album featuring orchestral accompaniment for every song was generally seen (like so many band-plus-orchestra attempts are) as a frivolous elaboration without improvement.

In short, the popular consensus on Morbid Angel’s gambit with Illud Divinum Insanus is failure: That a rock band attempted unsuccessfully to broaden their artistic capabilities in three ways: 1) By using their existing, organic death metal signature sound to write different types of song than usual (mainly anthems like “I Am Morbid”); 2) altering that signature sound with different (ie: electronic) instrumentation (as in “Too Extreme!”);  or 3) doing both (as in “Radikult” or “Destructos vs. the Earth”). On top of that, 4) their frontman has, through his lyrics, delivery and image, altered his persona somewhat. If you think that the new types of songwriting aren’t handled well, or if you think that the alterations to the signature sound aren’t interesting, or if you don’t like the change in persona, then Illud is indeed a bad record. But it’s my contention that with less percussion-programming and more Death Metal English, more of you would have let them get away with it.

For me, Illud Divinum Insanus is an entirely precedented – if out of character – Morbid Angel record which features six songs I enjoy, conveniently all in one uninterrupted sequence from tracks 3 through 8. Additionally I can tolerate tracks 1 and 2; it’s only from 9 onwards that the program seriously loses me. In other words, purely on the basis of how much material I find to be a compelling and unembarrassing listen, Illud Divinum Insanus mightn’t be Covenant or Gateways to Annihilation. But nor is it Heretic. Possibly more for the sake of their reputation than my own comfort, I don’t want another Morbid Angel album as divergent as Illud Divinum Insanus. But I can certainly live with and enjoy the one.

Fire away.

Photo VIA Invisible Oranges.

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